On the morning of Sept. 9, 1971, I was a television reporter in a news car en route to an assignment for then WGR-TV in Buffalo. Suddenly, the voice of the news director came over the two-way radio. There were no cellphones in those days. The "base" was in the station's newsroom and there were "remotes" in each of the half dozen or so cars on the street. The range for these radios extended to about 20 miles out of town. The greater the distance from the base, the weaker the signal. But I digress.
My camera man and I were told to forget the original assignment and instead proceed to a town called Attica, an estimated one-hour drive from Buffalo. We were recent hires at the station, and had been on the job for only about seven months. Most of our work had been in the city, so we had no idea where Attica was located.
Forty years ago, we couldn't plug in a destination on a GPS. The news director had to read from the station's road atlas and tell us the highways we should traverse to get to this small dot on the map. While I scribbled the directions down, I inquired what was happening in this rural area of Western New York. The answer came back quickly over the two-way radio. There is a prison in Attica and it appears that the inmates have taken over the institution. Get there as soon as possible.
When we arrived at the prison, we started interviewing everyone who was willing to talk. In 1971, film was the order of the day, with a 400-foot film magazine lasting 12 to 14 minutes. The camera was bulky; a sound mixer was a separate piece of gear, tethered by a cable to the camera. Throw in a microphone that was also attached by cable and you get the idea that "going portable" was not all that it was cracked up to be.
We couldn't use the two-way radio because we were way out of range. Our communications with Buffalo were limited to a pay phone in a store across the street from the prison. It was now being used by every reporter being sent to Attica. And there were plenty of reporters.
After being chosen as part of a journalistic team to attend the first negotiation session shortly after 6 p.m., we moved into the prison with all of the aforementioned gear. We accompanied the corrections commissioner into D Yard, which was firmly in control of the inmates, replete with several guards as hostages.
After the session, we left the prison with the precious film in hand to drive back to Buffalo. There was no satellite truck that would allow us to beam the signal back to the Queen City. We did manage to hop a helicopter ride, but once we arrived, we had to put our film into a processor for 25 minutes until it was developed. The film made it onto the 11 p.m. news. This process was repeated again and again until the prison was retaken on Sept. 13.
Forty years later, the "what ifs" continue to bother this reporter. What if we had a cellphone to communicate? What if we had videotape cassettes that ran 30 minutes and could be played back instantly? And, most importantly, what if we had a satellite truck on scene to constantly update the world on what was going on in this isolated community?
Would then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller have done something differently, and could the loss of 43 lives in the retaking of the prison have been avoided? Of course, we'll never know the answer to that question. But we do know that all of this modern technology was available in April 1993 when a prison riot in Lucasville, Ohio, went on for 11 days. There were reports on the national news each morning and evening. While a guard and five inmates were killed by other inmates, that riot ended peacefully with no lives lost when the prison was retaken.
So a case could be made for putting such events under the journalistic microscope. But we would need to expend extra care by the studio anchors and commentators of the cable news networks so as not to inflame the situation. With their customary shouting and talking over one another -- trying to be the story instead of reporting it -- most certainly it would take a great deal of calm to accomplish.
But 40 years after the nation's deadliest uprising, it might be the answer to avoid another tragic loss of life.
Stewart Dan worked at WGR-TV for 10 years as a reporter, weatherman, anchor and news director. He went on to a 25-year Emmy Award-winning career with NBC Network News as the Midwest producer for the "Today" show and Midwest bureau chief. He retired in 2005 and spends most of the year in Arizona.